Antisemitism and the Christian Left

 on March 4, 2024

I was first aware of my Jewish heritage when I was seven- years-old. I was at the home of a new friend I’d met in the local park. We were playing innocently when his father came home and began shouting. I only realised later what he’d been saying. “Is he a Jew? Get him out of here.” Only half-Jewish, so I should have asked if I could at least stay until lunchtime.

In fact, I experienced very little antisemitism growing up in Britain and now living in Canada. I’ve three Jewish grandparents, but my maternal grandmother was Anglican and I was raised with a limited Jewish identity. But Coren is a Hebrew name, people knew, and generally didn’t care.

I’d long considered hatred of Jewish people a pathology that while never dead, was confined to the largely irrelevant fringe. The reaction to Israel’s campaign in Gaza changed that however. Of course there’s a vital difference between criticism of Israel and antisemitism, and of course the term is sometimes wrongly and politically applied, but if you don’t think that antisemitism has become magnified recently the one thing I can guarantee is that you’re not Jewish.

The basics first. I’ve lived in Israel, worked with Palestinian Christians in the peace movement, wrote my university thesis on pre-state Zionist terrorism, know the history and politics of the region rather well, and believe in a ceasefire, a two-state solution, justice for Palestinians, and peace for Israel.

I’d always assumed that most of my fellow Christians agreed with me on all this and I continue to believe that the vast majority still do. I’ve written at length on the problem of Christian Zionism, how it’s mili- taristic, ignores the Palestinian Christian narrative, and at its most raw looks to an eschatological bloodbath.

But what of the Christian left? I’m never comfortable with qualifying Christianity and much prefer C.S. Lewis’s use of the word “mere,” but while left and right may be clumsy, they’re useful shorthand.

I’m a man of the left. Liberal, social democratic, and old-style radical. So, I was a little surprised earlier this year to be blocked on X (formerly Twitter) by a co-founder of the Red- Letter Christians in the US and a prominent left-wing Christian. I’d objected to his reference to the “Holocaust hermeneutic”. I found it to be reductive and smug, especially as I’d grown up being aware of my great-aunt’s death camp tattoo.

I’m sure I’ll survive that social media excommunication but it’s indicative of a genuine prob- lem. Gaza and the Palestinians became a cause for the left, and that includes left-wing Christians. That’s entirely understandable and usually laudable, but for Christians there has to be a wider, deeper, more nuanced analysis.

One of, perhaps the main, motivation for Israel’s foundation in 1948 was the unparalleled agonies suffered by Jews in Christian Europe. Jews left the Arab, Muslim world later and weren’t the main protagonists in the early years. Centuries of pogroms, blood libels, expulsions, massacres, and finally the Holocaust took place in a continent that was overwhelmingly Christian. Good God, many of these atrocities were church-initiated, and it’s only fairly recently that the wound of Christian antisemitism has begun to heal.

None of this should present a Christian from demanding justice and peace in Palestine but it should inform our approach, understanding, and sympathies. I’ve also seen a shameful lack of empathy in the depiction and description of Jesus as a Palestinian. I appreciate what’s being attempted, but we should never forget the horrors that have been caused by the expunging of the Jewishness of Jesus. He was a Jew, a Galilean Jew, with a Jewish mother. To suggest otherwise is not only bad theology and a denial of God’s plan but also racially and politically crass and dangerous.

I sometimes hear and read things from Christians that border on the racist, and make it appear that the entire Israel/ Palestine conflict exists in a bubble without any historical and human context. Colonial settlers? Where were the survivors of the Shoah and later the Mizrahi Jews from the Arab world supposed to go, and why does my paternal DNA go back not to Europe but the Middle East?

Israel and its supporters have sometimes used antisemitism as a justification for the actions of a nation-state, false accusations are profoundly damaging, and no authentic follower of Jesus can turn away from the slaughter of the innocents. But our commitment is not to a political ideology but to a relationship with God, and such a relationship rests on love for all people, understanding of our own brokenness and failings, and to a great, grand revolution of compassion and understanding. The Jewish Jesus teaches me that, and should teach us all.

  • Michael Coren

    The Reverend Michael Coren is the author of 18 books, several of them best-sellers, translated into a dozen languages. He hosted daily radio and TV shows for almost 20 years, and is now a Contributing Columnist for the Toronto Star, and appears regularly in the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, The Oldie, ipaper, TVOntario, The New Statesman, and numerous other publications in Canada and Britain. He has won numerous award and prizes across North America. He is a priest at St. Luke’s, Burlington. His latest book is The Rebel Christ.

    [email protected]
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